Complaints Across State Agencies Spotlight Racial Divide In Vermont Government Workplace

Feb 15, 2018

While allegations of racial harassment at the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital in Berlin made news last week, records show that they were hardly isolated incidents: The state regularly fields complaints of race-based harassment and discrimination at agencies across state government.

According to records on file at the Vermont Department of Human Resources, people of color have filed 35 formal complaints of racial harassment or employment discrimination against state workers, or the government agencies they work for, over the past five years.

The complaints span 12 departments and agencies, including the Agency of Human Services, Department for Children and Families, the Office of the Treasurer, and the Vermont Veterans’ home.

Karen Richards, executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, says that, based on her work over the past year, she’s come to the conclusion that the issue of “systemic racism” in state government is getting worse, not better.

“There are a lot of people that have attitudes that they have maybe been keeping quiet about but that are now bubbling to the surface because it’s become politically and socially, I guess, a little more acceptable,” Richards says.

"Just don't sweep it under the rug. Talk about it ... That's what I want. I want people to talk about it." — Mediatrice Muzima, Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital

The Department of Human Resources withheld from a public records request copies of the written complaints, or documentation related to their investigation.

The department says that information is exempt from the public records act, based on the privacy interests of both complainants and the accused.

The department, however, has released data showing the disposition of those cases.

In 10 instances, “some action” was taken by the state, according to the department. Four cases resulted in a “stipulated agreement” with the employee or their resignation. Another four cases involve ongoing investigation or are pending a decision on discipline, according to data provided by the department.

A workforce report issued by the Department of Human Resources earlier this year provides more statistical evidence that employees of color experience disparate treatment at the state agencies they work for.

  • In fiscal years 2016 and 2017, according to report, employees of color voluntarily left the government workforce at nearly twice the rate as their white counterparts.
  • They were also four times more likely to be fired.
  • And when it comes to pay, workers of color make 10 percent less on average than white workers.

“I think we interpret the data to say that we’ve got some work to do in state government,” Richards says.

The People Behind The Numbers

Mediatrice Muzima didn’t need statistical data to know there about racial bias in the state workforce.

“You know, it’s hard. It’s just hard,” Muzima says. “I would say it’s … a different experience.”

Muzima has been working as a mental health specialist at the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital since 2014. She’s been in Vermont since 2006 when she emigrated from Rwanda. Muzima worked as a psychiatric nurse before coming to the United States and says she got into the field to help survivors of the Rwandan genocide.

“Just being a survivor of that trauma, I think I was drawn to do that kind of work,” Muzima says.

Muzima says that, in Vermont, doing the work has sometimes required her to absorb a torrent of racial slurs from psychiatric patients.

Difficult as it is to be the target of racist aggression, Muzima says she understands the patients are in most cases suffering from acute mental health conditions.

It’s how her colleagues sometimes respond to those episodes, Muzima says, that can make the workplace so alienating.

“Say something. Tell [the patients] this is not okay,” Muzima says. “My hope was, the supervisor, the charge nurse, they would follow up, like, maybe a briefing or something, that would just make me feel like people cared what just happened to me right there. But it never happened.”

Muzima says there are other difficulties too: being mistaken for other female workers of color is pretty common, or just being made to feel she doesn’t match up.

“You know, I wish people can just make that little effort to know who’s whom,” Muzima says. “I have to prove myself because I have an accent, I’m from Africa. Sometimes they don’t even know where you came from: ‘Are you from Jamaica?’”

Muzima says she isn’t looking for colleagues to be fired or to be given special treatment herself. What she wants, she says, is acknowledgment that the problem exists.

“Just don’t sweep it under the rug. Talk about it,” Muzima says. “That’s what I want. I want people to talk about it.”

“One staff member referred to me as an animal”

Mary Ezenwa now lives in Spokane, Washington, and hasn’t worked at the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital since 2014.

But when she read the report issued by the Vermont Human Rights Commission last week, the allegations made against some of her former colleagues hit very close to home.

“One staff member referred to me as an animal,” Ezenwa says. “Physically, I was just being treated in a way that was uncomfortable.”

VPR isn’t able to independently verify Ezenwa’s story, but the recent report from the Human Rights Commission documents similar allegations by other employees of color at the hospital. The investigation came after an African American employee named Ismina Francois filed a formal complaint.

RELATED: Investigation Finds Evidence Of Widespread Racial Harassment At State-Run Hospital In Berlin

According to the report, one African American man left work one evening to discover that a colleague had scrawled the N-word on his vehicle in the parking lot. The report says that same man had also become accustomed to some white co-workers calling him, quote, “Chocolate Boy.”

Ezenwa is mentioned in the report too, right at the top of page 15. That particular passage in the report describes Ezenwa being mocked by some white co-workers for wearing her hair naturally.

"If you're a black person, and you report something, you have a target on your back." — Mary Ezenwa, former employee at Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital

Ezenwa was not interviewed for the Human Rights Commission report; it was other hospital staff members who mentioned the incident to investigators.

Ezenwa, who spoke to VPR by phone from Washington State, says her supervisor at one point actually told her to start using chemical straighteners.

“She didn’t like the way my hair was," Ezenwa explained. "And she felt that my hair should be straight."

Ezenwa says that when she began reporting the alleged abuse hospital administrators, her supervisors began retaliating. She was taken off duty at the hospital, and never returned.

“If you’re a black person, and you report something, you have a target on your back,” Ezenwa says. “They don’t trust you. You become a threat, and especially if you use the word, ‘racism.’ That makes you a double threat.”

Ezenwa filed a complaint of her own with the Human Rights Commission. Documents obtained by VPR show the state offered Ezenwa a $2,000 settlement and a neutral letter of recommendation, in exchange for her dropping the complaint, and agreeing never to seek employment with the state of Vermont.

Ezenwa rejected the offer; the Human Rights Commission, according to documents, later said it found no “reasonable grounds” that the state had discriminated against Ezenwa based on her race or color.

"At what point do we say, 'You should not have to experience that just to feed your family. You should not have to accept that as a way of life here in Vermont.'" — Rep. Kiah Morris

Ezenwa, who grew up in Manhattan, says she never had work issues prior to moving to Vermont, and that she’s been happily employed at a behavioral health facility in Spokane for the past two years.

“I’m all about solidarity with the races. People should just work together. And I’m about building relationships,” Ezenwa says. “I think my first encounter with racism was in Vermont.”

Like Muzima, Ezenwa says she isn’t interested in evening the score with some of her former colleagues at the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital. She says she only wants the Department of Mental Health to acknowledge there’s a problem, and take meaningful steps to make it better.

“I don’t want anything negative to be said about the hospital. It’s just a few people that are causing that kind of chaos in that environment,” Ezenwa says. “Changing the story requires really addressing the issue of, ‘Why do you have bad actors in that environment?’ That’s not okay.”

Action From Montpelier?

Bennington Rep. Kiah Morris says the report from the Human Rights Commission is just the latest example of the corrosive effects of racism in Vermont.

“And this is endemic of what happens when we don’t deal with systemic racism, when we don’t deal with these underlying biases that bring forth a lack of decorum, that bring forth an inability to recognize another person’s humanity,” Morris says.

Morris says people of color deal with both explicit racism and implicit bias on a daily basis in public and private-sector workplaces around the state.

“And at what point do we say, ‘You should not have to experience that just to feed your family. You should not have to accept that as a way of life here in Vermont.’ When do we say, ‘It’s enough?’” Morris says.

Morris, one of the very few lawmakers of color in Montpelier, says she hopes that time is now. She and other lawmakers are working on several pieces of legislation that try to address racism the state workforce. But she says leadership on this front needs to come from the top.

Rep. Kevin "Coach" Christie, left, with Rep. Kiah Morris at Gov. Scott's Budget Address in January.
Credit Emily Alfin Johnson / VPR file

Morris, along with Karen Richards and a handful of other lawmakers, met recently with Gov. Phil Scott. They asked him to issue an executive order that would require agency heads to tackle to issue head on.

“We need you not to just sign the bill and see it go through," she explained. "We need to you make a very clear, clear directive to our state government that this work needs to begin, and being now."

As one of the relatively few women of color occupying a position of power in this state, Morris says she’s ready to use her voice to make some change.

“It shouldn’t require that I have this position and that I have this voice for it to be taken seriously. But that’s where we’re at, and that’s what we’re going to do,” Morris says.

And Morris says the Scott administration’s actions will show just how seriously it cares.